Video-game movies have a bit of a . . . reputation, which I’ve separated into four nifty categories:
- Bury It Like They Did That Atari E.T. Game (or: I See Someone Let Uwe Boll Direct Again)
- This Much Cheese Belongs on a Pizza
- Actually Kinda Okay
- Am I Having Fun? Wow! I Kinda Am!
As a gamer who’s been watching video-game movies since that, um, unique take on Super Mario Bros. in 1993, I’ve accepted the fact that there will never be a “Holy bananas—this is amazing!” adaptation. You may be wondering if this is leading to some spectacular reveal that the newest Tomb Raider movie has broken the cycle of mediocre gaming flicks.
Well . . . it hasn’t. But it’s not terrible, either.
I’d hate to disappoint you, but I have a feeling that if you’ve been watching video game movies since the ’90s—or even if you’ve just been watching the latest batch (Assassin’s Creed and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter)—you probably already knew that this wasn’t going to be extraordinary. Still, you definitely heard that “Survivor” cover in the trailer and thought, “Eh . . . it might be decent.” And you know what? It is decent. In fact, it’s—dare I say—fun!
Warning: This review contains spoilers. For your spoiler-free tl;dr summary, see the End Credits section at the very end of the article.
Worth Raiding: The Good
Let’s talk about what works with this movie. Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft? Kills it. Much like the games in the reboot series, you feel for her every step of the way. You wince when she takes a hard hit, and you at least crack a smile when she says something witty. Her determination is infectious, and much like Angelina Jolie’s casting for the OG movie Lara, Vikander feels like the perfect fit.
I’m not going to compare her to Jolie and break down who did it best. To me, there’s no point. Jolie portrayed a very different Lara when she donned those tiny shorts and double pistols—back then, Lara was a thrill seeker who went on adventures because the sun was out and she felt like climbing a mountain or something. Reboot Lara is a survivor who grows stronger through the various trials she has to overcome. She’s not going to be training with robots for kicks before engaging in some shower scenes that are Totally Necessary to the Plot, Really, We Swear This Is Important.
Something else I liked about the new movie is the direction it takes Lara in. Her father’s missing, and she stands to inherit everything . . . but she chooses not to. Instead, she’s surviving on her own from the start, doing what she can to make money and pretty much showing zero interest in the Croft legacy. The opening to the movie is actually pretty engaging and introduces us to a Lara who’s kind of denounced her family; in fact, she’s almost mad at her father for taking all of those trips when she was young.
It’s unfortunate that the movie doesn’t keep up with this premise, but more on that later.
Some of the action sequences are also pretty great, especially when they involve Lara dealing with obstacles on her own. There’s a particular action sequence that calls back to the adrenaline many of us have felt playing the game, because the game doesn’t always believe in letting you breathe—you get away from one calamity only to be thrust into another, and these moments are pretty intense in the movie. It’s the perfect transition from video game to big screen, and is exactly what video-game movies should strive to be.
The downside? The trailer pretty much shows all of these moments. Not exactly in the right order, but you’ll be waiting for “that one trailer scene” to happen, which is fine until you realize all of the big action moments have been revealed. It’s still cool seeing them in full, but it would’ve been an even bigger surprise had we not seen the river, the plane, the bow-and-arrow chase, and all those other moments.
At Least Look at the Map: The Decent
This is where the movie slips from being good into being passable.
(It’s also the point where this review gets more spoiler-y.)
Lara’s relationship with Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) is extremely predictable—I could already imagine the CinemaSins video dinging it and saying, “What a coincidence!” You see, Lara lost her dad, and hey, so did Lu Ren! Friendship activate! Despite his initial skepticism of sailing out to a place called the Devil’s Sea! Which leads to the real problem: when did these two reach the point where he’d be willing to put his life on the line for her? They crash onto the island. They’re caught by the bad guys. And he’s . . . willing to risk his life so she can escape? Cool, but um, why?
Also, as great as opening-act Lara is, and as cool as sniping-at-dudes-with-a-bow-and-arrow Lara is, we don’t get much of the actual survival aspect of her. It’s there, of course, but as soon as you think she’ll have to survive on her own, something happens so that she’s not alone anymore. It’s kind of a letdown because the movie opens with her surviving daily life on her own, without her family influence, and this is also how Lara is in the video games the movie is pulling from. Lara of the rebooted game series may be on a quest to find her friends after their ship becomes the victim of a massive storm (yeah, the game plot is different than the movie), but for the most part she has to trek through the unknown by herself. That’s not to say I didn’t want her to work with others, but I wanted more of her figuring things out by herself, on her own terms, and not because . . . well, we’ll get to that in the next part.
Best Left in The Tomb: The Bad
And now for the, “Ugh, why?” segment of this review. Bigger spoilers ahead.
One. We gotta talk about the villain.
You know how one of the complaints about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that save for Killmonger and those moody Thor kids, Loki and Hela, its villains are pretty lackluster? Scratch. All. Of. That. I’d take any of the MCU’s throwaway bad guys over Mathias Vogel. He’s bland—like, “watching paint dry” bland. Like, “watching your console download updates so you can play Tomb Raider” bland. He’s also in the middle of a villain identity crisis because he can’t decide what kind of threat he wants to be. When we first meet him, it feels like we’ll get the “You can trust me, honest!” guy, but two minutes in and he’s stroking Lara’s face, ’cause, you know, that’s what male villains do to pretty women, right? Oh, and he tells her he killed her dad—so much for gaining her trust. He barks orders, yet he isn’t very smart, as he needs others to figure out puzzles for him. (So why did you kill Papa Croft again?)
I guess he’s intimidating because he randomly shoots people, but why is he threatening? It’s for the final battle, isn’t it? Yep. Yes it is. Cool.
Did I mention his whole “Feel bad for me” plot? He’s got kids back at home, and he’s been stuck on this island for seven years. He’s forced to answer to the Trinity organization, so he just wants to get this mission over with. He doesn’t even believe in this mythological nonsense. Cry me a river, dude—your motivations are more scrambled than my eggs in the morning. How you managed to get people to take you seriously is beyond me.
Two, the overall plot. As I said, it differs from the games—kind of. There are parts that come directly from the reboots and others that . . . look, I’m gonna be honest. I really dislike the “Lara misses her dad” stuff. Yes, he’s missing, which makes sense as Lara Croft and missing or dead parents go hand and hand. But it kind of ruined the popcorn-y action of the Angelina Jolie version (time travel, whee!), and it’s worse here because the plot relies on it way, way too much. I actually thought this movie would go in a different direction because Lara wanted nothing to do with the Croft name, but nope, it’s completely about finding Dad . . . even if he told her to burn his research. (Come on, Papa Croft, you knew she wasn’t going to listen to you. Especially since you left all of those clues behind.)
In the first game, Lara’s setting out to “make her mark,” which fits with the first act of the movie: Lara doing her own thing. But then it becomes a predictable father/daughter story, and it’s disappointing.
We also need to talk about the tomb that’s being raided and the island itself. There are all these myths surrounding the mysterious island, and, well, nothing really comes of them. The movie can’t quite decide if the stories are true or if there’s a more logical answer. An answer is given in the end, but considering what other characters say throughout the movie, you expect to see some mysticism in the story somewhere. There has to be something that draws people to the island, right? Since we don’t see much of Trinity (Vogel is basically their errand boy), I’m okay with not knowing their plans, but you have got to explain why Lara’s father was so invested in this myth that he left his daughter behind! He gives an explanation in the video he leaves for Lara, but it’s flimsy at best. Something about missing his wife so much, or whatever? Uh-huh, right, so, how did you figure that going to this danger island would help? Or were you trying to stop Trinity and save the world, ’cause danger island is dangerous? Which is it? You don’t know? Yeah, well, neither do I.
I wouldn’t recommend going to see Tomb Raider in theaters—unless it’s a matinee showing, preferably at a place that does free popcorn Tuesdays. When it hits streaming, though? Check it out, for sure. If you were hoping this would be the movie to break the video-game movie curse and be perfect, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. It is, however, a decent start to this year’s run of game adaptations, and that’s really the most we can expect.